In times of difficulty, it is not uncommon to turn to those in whom we have a reasonable expectation of a positive response to our request for assistance. Family represents the first port in a storm. For one’s kin is not expected to exploit our moments of weakness and exposure. Family members are most likely to respond with kindness and with no anticipation of reward for their deeds.
When a person is down and out, they are often in their most vulnerable state. It is at this point that they are likely to accede to requests, that they otherwise, would reject out of hand. What pride they are prone to exhibit can easily be replaced by the reality of meeting immediate needs for survival.
We who call the Caribbean home, know well that we are among the most exposed to natural disasters. Each year, we face the stark reality that our economies could be wiped out after years of sacrifices and efforts to strengthen the economic building blocks.
Haiti, our poorest cousins in the northern Caribbean and CARICOM neighbour presents one of the examples in the region of exploitation of its people by agencies and foreigners, who travel to the beleaguered nation to ostensibly help their needy.
A frequent magnate for despair and tragedy, in 2010 the French-speaking country, which shares the island of Hispaniola with its Spanish-speaking neighbour, the Dominican Republic, was hit by a devastating earthquake.
The exact death toll there proved elusive in the ensuing chaos. However, the Haitian government placed the official death count at more than 300,000. Some estimates suggested it was considerably smaller.
What was certain, though, was the considerable displacement faced by hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors. The 7.0 magnitude event caused about US$8 billion in damage.
Some 10 months after the destructive earthquake, the suffering of Haitians was multiplied by a deadly cholera outbreak. The United Nations, which had put thousands of its peacekeepers from around the world, on the ground in Haiti, established a commission to find the cause of the cholera outbreak after Haitian nationals accused the agency’s peacekeeping force of causing the outbreak by running sewerage from a camp into a river.
In its May 2011 findings, the UN acknowledged that the bacteria was introduced into Haiti “as a result of human activity”, specifically by the contamination of the Artibonite River with a pathogenic strain from South Asia.
The issue with disasters is the exposure that victims of such occurrences face. For not only did the poor people of Haiti have to battle the fallout from the earthquake but a cholera epidemic was brought to them by outsiders.
Added to this, reports claimed peacekeepers used their access to money, food, and shelter, as a cover to sexually exploit Haitian women and children.
A New York Times report in 2019, revealed that UN peacekeepers fathered and left behind hundreds of children, The UN has since admitted to numerous instances where peacekeepers sexually exploited and abused Haitians during the moment of greatest need.
Girls as young as 11-years-old were raped and impregnated by peacekeepers, stationed in Haiti from 2004 to 2017, the report disclosed. Girls said they were given pennies for sex.
The subject of exploitation of women and girls in disaster situations came to the fore again recently with the regrettable comments of Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Mr Gaston Browne that St Vincent’s Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves should “send all the young pretty ladies” as he needed “to expand our population”.
Hundreds of Vincentians, displaced by the volcano are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. And while Mr Browne has been generous in offering “safe” shelter in Antigua, he has clouded the offer with sexist remarks that certainly give no comfort to a young woman who might have considered accepting the overture.
Rightly condemned at home and abroad, Browne in his usual defiant, Trumpian style, responded with personal attacks on the messengers rather than considering the value of the messages.
To suggest it was light-hearted banter would be to dismiss the well-documented trauma and abuse that women especially face in disaster situations. Often women and girls are forced to negotiate the untenable dilemma of preserving their bodies or feeding themselves or their children.
Dr Kristina Hinds, a young, outspoken Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill Campus slammed Browne’s statement as “highly inappropriate, insensitive and sexist”. She also expressed disappointment that such a comment had come from a political leader.
Ironically, it was Browne who reached out to his neighbours when Barbuda was decimated by Hurricane Irma in 2017 turning nearly 90 per cent of the population into refugees. He certainly would not have taken kindly to such comments attached to assistance to Barbudans.
The young academic was correct to put Mr Browne in his place, insisting that in a crisis, women are most vulnerable and “to make this sort of joke is inappropriate”.
The women’s arm of Antigua’s United Progressive Party made it clear the comments were neither funny nor light-hearted, and it was disgraceful that a prime minister would give succour to the thought that women should be preyed on or seen as sexual objects.